IBM, Stanford craft next-generation chips

IBM and Stanford University have announced a new research group dedicated to the emerging science of spintronics, with the goal of creating prototype CPUs that complete computations through magnetism instead of today's electrical charge.

"We're trying to do something that could be as significant as the launch of the transistor 50 years ago," says Robert Morris, vice president of IBM's personal systems and storage. He directs the Almaden Research Center here, where Big Blue and Stanford luminaries announced the new joint development effort.

The IBM-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications Center (SpinApps) could be key to future advancements in processor technology, according to Stuart Parkin, an IBM Fellow and manager of the Magnetoelectronics group at the center.

Processor manufacturers have traditionally increased CPU performance by shrinking a chip's circuitry so it can run faster, he notes. This method has dramatically increased computing power over the past few decades, but the process is hitting physical limitations. Specifically: The necessary electrical charge causes those faster chips to get too hot to handle. Processor giant Intel has noted the growing problem of heat in recent years, too.

Parkin and his associates hope spintronics will help create ever-more-powerful processors, so manufacturing roadblocks won't slow the pace of technological evolution.

Line Up the Electrons

Today's processors use an electrical charge to create on and off states. A processor based on the principles of spintronics could control the spin (or magnetic orientation) of electrons and create two possible states: up or down. The result: atomic-size structures that offer enormous computational capabilities while generating very little heat.

Parkin estimates that current processor manufacturing technologies could yield five to ten more years of performance improvements. However, that's not much time to develop a new way to build CPUs.

"It takes a long time to go from theory to product," Parkin says.

In fact, that's about how long it has taken another spintronics-based technology to go from idea to product, he adds. Magnetic random access memory (MRAM) has been in the works for more than nine years. Several companies are now readying products that use the technology, and could ship them as early as next year.

Cheap, high performance, and nonvolatile, MRAM represents a dramatic improvement over today's two most common memory standards: dynamic RAM (DRAM) and static RAM (SRAM, or flash memory), Parkin says. He likens today's DRAM to a leaky bucket that must be constantly refreshed to maintain its contents. Meanwhile, SRAM doesn't leak, but it must be a much larger bucket. MRAM is like a small bucket that doesn't need constant refilling. IBM and Infineon Technologies announced in 2000 plans to co-develop MRAM products.

Spintronics on the Net

While CPUs and MRAM are still on the drawing board, IBM has already introduced its first spintronics-based product. In fact, it appeared back in 1997 as the first hard drive to use the giant magneto-resistive (GMR) head. The GMR technology brought about a 40-fold increase in data density over the past seven years, and helped fuel the massive growth in hard drive capacities, according to IBM representatives.

By enabling manufacturers to create large, cost-effective hard drives, spintronics technology has helped the Internet expand, Parkin notes. With lots of cheap storage available, the Web has had more room to grow.

In fact, IBM's contributions to areal density have may have led to the company's retreat from the hard drive business, he jokes.

"By 2005 we'll be able to store all of the data in existence on just the hard drives shipped in that year. Maybe that's why we sold the disk drive business," Parkin says. IBM sold its hard drive division to Hitachi in 2002.

Regardless of the eventual business ramifications, Parkin and his team--comprising more than 25 research specialists including Stanford professors, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and IBM employees--clearly have lofty goals for this emerging technology.

In his closing comments at the announcement, IBM's Morris outlined the technology's potential to impact everything from computational computing to storage. He noted, in what could turn out to be an understatement, "we may be on the verge of something extremely important."

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